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The great divergence: Since the late 1970s the America I knew has unraveled. We’re no longer a middle-class society, in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared: between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose only 13 percent, but the income of the richest 0.1% of Americans rose 296 percent.
Most people assume that this rise in inequality was the result of impersonal forces, like technological change and globalization. But the great reduction of inequality that created middle-class America between 1935 and 1945 was driven by political change; I believe that politics has also played an important role in rising inequality since the 1970s. It’s important to know that no other advanced economy has seen a comparable surge in inequality – even the rising inequality of Thatcherite Britain was a faint echo of trends here.
On the political side, you might have expected rising inequality to produce a populist backlash. Instead, however, the era of rising inequality has also been the era of “movement conservatism,” the term both supporters and opponents use for the highly cohesive set of interlocking institutions that brought Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to power, and reached its culmination, taking control of all three branches of the federal government, under George W. Bush. (Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.)